Prev Next

How Nostalgia Works

Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Nostalgia Works

Dr. Alan R. Hirsch of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation said this about nostalgia: "Nostalgia does not relate to a specific memory, but rather to an emotional state. This idealized emotional state is framed within a past era. Idealized past emotions become displaced onto inanimate objects, sounds, smells and tastes that were experienced concurrently with the emotions." This resonated strongly with me — that nostalgia is really a longing for an emotion, not an event.

It doesn't seem to be the prevailing view, though. So maybe nostalgia means different things to different people. Perhaps this is why, when my husband was helping me brainstorm nostalgia-inducing movies and TV shows for the "Looking for a Trigger?" sidebar, we often disagreed. I tended toward ones with the general theme of "coming of age," while his suggestions were more based on release date — which movies and shows were popular in different time periods. (He doubted millennials would experience nostalgia watching "Stand By Me," for example. I find it hard to believe any human could watch that movie without getting wistful for the journey that is adolescence.)

I looked far and wide to find another expert who so directly described nostalgia as a yearning for a specific past emotion more than a specific past event, but I came up short. So I shied away from focusing on that definition here. But just so you know, it's out there.

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Boym, Svetlana. "The Future of Nostalgia." Basic Books. 2001. Chapter 1: From Cured Soldiers to Incurable Romantics: Nostalgia and Progress. (April 28, 2015)
  • Cheung WY, Wildschut T, Sedikides C, Hepper E, Arndt J, Vingerhoets AJJM. "Back to the future: Nostalgia increases optimism." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2013;39(11):1484 - 1496. ISSN 0146-1672. (Accessed April 27, 2015). Available from:
  • Daniels, EB. "Nostalgia: Experiencing the Elusive." In: Ihde, Don and Hugh J. Silverman, eds. "Descriptions." Albany: State University of New York Press. 1985. (April 28, 2015) Available from:
  • Elliot, Stuart. "Selling With Nostalgia, Post-Boomer." The New York Times. June 9, 2014. (May 6, 2015)
  • Hemmings, Robert. "Modern Nostalgia: Siegfried Sassoon, Trauma and the Second World War." Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2008. Introduction, p. 6-7. (April 28, 2015) Available from:
  • Hirsch, Alan R. "Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding." In NA - Advances in Consumer Research. Vol. 19. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, eds. Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research. 1992. Pg. 390-395. (Accessed April 21, 2015). Available from:
  • Holak, Susan L. and William J. Havlena. "Nostalgia: An Exploratory Study of Themes and Emotions in the Nostalgic Experience." Advances in Consumer Research. Vol. 19. 1992. p. 380-7. (Accessed May 7, 2015) Available from:
  • Janata, Petr. "The Neural Architecture of Music-Evoked Autobiographical Memories." Cerebral Cortex.
  • Leardi, Jeanette. "The Incredible Powers of Nostalgia." The Huffington Post. Oct. 5, 2013. (April 23, 2015)
  • Leibach, Julie. "Why Do I Get Nostalgic?" Science Friday. April 16, 2013. (April 21, 2015)
  • Levit, Rachel. "You Have No Idea What Happened." The New Yorker. Feb. 4, 2015. (May 7, 2015)
  • Matt, Susan J. "Home, Sweet Home." The New York Times Opinion Pages. April 19, 2012. (May 7, 2015)
  • Merchant A, Ford J. "Nostalgia and giving to charity: a conceptual framework for discussion and research. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing. 2008 Feb; 13(1): 13-30. (Accessed April 27, 2015) Available from:
  • Murray, Marjorie A. "Our Chemical Senses: 2. Taste." Neuroscience for Kids. The University of Washington. (April 27, 2015)
  • NBC News. "Smells like nostalgia: Why do scents bring back memories?" July 19, 2012 (April 27, 2015)
  •, title="Luba Ostashevsky">Ostashevsky, Luba. "The neuroscience of nostalgia – strong holiday memories explained." Al Jazeera America. Dec. 25, 2014. (April 27, 2015)
  • Parry, Wynne. "What 'Midnight in Paris' Tells Us About Nostalgia." Live Science. Feb. 14, 2012. (May 7, 2015)
  • Phelps, Elizabeth A. "Human emotion and memory: interactions of the amygdala and hippocampal complex." Current Opinion in Neurobiology. 2004. Vol. 14. p. 198–202. (Accessed May 7, 2015) Available from:
  • Reid, C.A, Green, J.D., Wildschut, Tim and Sedikides, Constantine (2013). "Scent-evoked nostalgia." Memory. Vol. 23, Issue 2. p. 157-166. (Accessed April 30, 2015) Available from:
  • Routledge, Clay. "Bored? Try Nostalgia." Psychology Today. May 6, 2014. (May 7, 2015)
  • Routledge, Clay. "The Rehabilitation of an Old Emotion: The New Science of Nostalgia." Scientific American. July 13, 2013. (April 22, 2015)
  • Sedikides C, Wildschut T, Arndt J, and Routledge C. "Nostalgia: Past, Present, and Future." Current Directions in Psychological Science. October 2008. (Accessed April 27, 2015),%20Wildschut,%20Arndt,%20%26%20Routledge,%202008,%20CDir.pdf
  • Stern, Mark Joseph. "Neural Nostalgia." Slate. Aug. 12, 2014. (April 21, 2015)
  • Tierney, John. "What is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows." The New York Times. July 8, 2013. (April 21, 2015)
  • University of Chicago Press Journals. "The nostalgia effect: Do consumers spend more when thinking about the past?" July 22, 2014. (April 30, 2015)
  • University of Southampton. "Nostalgia: What Nostalgia Is and What It Does." (April 23, 2015)
  • Van Tilburg, Wijnand AP, Constantine Sedikides, and Tim Wildschut. "The Mnemonic Muse: Nostalgia Fosters Creativity through Openness to Experience." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology., title="Go to table of contents for this volume/issue">Vol. 59. July 2015. p. 1-7. (Accessed May 7, 2015) Available from:
  • Verplanken, Bas. "When bittersweet turns sour: Adverse effects of nostalgia on habitual worriers." European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 285–289 (2012). (Accessed April 30, 2015) Available from:
  • Werman, David S. "Normal and Pathological Nostalgia." Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. 1977. Vol. 25. p. 387-98. (Accessed May 7, 2015) Available from:
  • Wildschut, Tim, Constantine Sedikides, Jamie Arndt and Clay Routledge. "Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association). 2006. Vol. 91, No. 5. p. 975–993. (Accessed May 5, 2015) Available from:
  • Wildschut, Tim, Constantine Sedikides and Clay Routledge. "Nostalgia: From cowbells to the meaning of life." The British Psychological Society. 2008 Jan. Vol. 21. p. 20-23. (Accessed April 27, 2015). Available from:
  • Zhou X, Wildschut T, Sedikides C, Chen X, Vingerhoets AJJM. "Heartwarming Memories: Nostalgia Maintains Physiological Comfort." Emotion. Advance online publication. March 5, 2012 (Accessed April 27, 2015). Available from: